The Case for U.S. Engagement in UNESCO


The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization uses education, science, culture, communication, and information to foster mutual understanding and respect for our planet. Historically, the U.S. has provided 22% of the Agency’s assessed budget (totaling approximately $80 million per year). In November 2013, however, after two consecutive years not paying our dues to UNESCO, the U.S. lost its vote in the UNESCO General Conference and was forced (per guidelines of the organization) to stop its funding.

The reason the U.S. originally stopped funding UNESCO is found in U.S. Title IV of P.L. 101-246, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. The Act states, “No funds… shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as a member.” In 1994, Congress broadened this prohibition to encompass “any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”

In October 2011, the General Conference of UNESCO voted to extend membership to Palestine, triggering an immediate cut-off of funding to the Agency. These prohibitions are absolute, applying to all funds (assessed and voluntary) that the U.S. provides. And unlike many other funding limitations imposed by Congress, the President is accorded no authority to waive them on the basis of vital U.S. national security, economic, or humanitarian concerns.

Following the UNESCO vote on Palestine, the Obama Administration lobbied Congress to soften provisions by giving the President authority to act “on a case-by-case basis… [if] to do so is important to the national interest of the United States.”

Unfortunately, the President’s appeal was unsuccessful. After two consecutive years of not paying its dues, the U.S. lost its vote in UNESCO in late 2013. The Trump Administration later announced complete U.S. withdraw from the Agency in October 2017.

The Impact to UNESCO

The combination of U.S. withdraw, $612 million in U.S. arrears, and a massive shortfall in UNESCO’s budget created a perilous financial crisis for many programs administered by the Agency. In fact, because of the loss of U.S. funding, the following programs have experienced severe cuts or threats of elimination:

  • Transparency and Accountability of the Judiciary in Iraq
  • Iraq Literacy and Curriculum Development Programs
  • Literacy for Afghan Police
  • Holocaust Education
  • Groundwater Resources Exploration to Combat Drought & Famine in the Horn of Africa
  • Promoting Education in Support of Nation-Building in South Sudan

The Rise of China

Without the U.S. at the table, UNESCO’s work as a standard-bearer for human rights, free expression, and open inquiry has been weakened. Moreover, China has replaced the U.S. as the organization’s largest financial contributor, providing more than 15% of the Agency’s assessed budget in 2020. In recent years, China has sought to use UNESCO as a platform to advance its own interests — part of a larger push to wield growing clout at the United Nations.

For example, China urged UNESCO to support vocational and job training programs in countries partnering with China on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as a partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to enhance “capacity-building in Belt and Road Initiative countries.” Given the BRI’s potential implications for U.S. national security and economic interests — particularly in the Asia-Pacific region — this is a concerning development. Unfortunately, due to America’s absence from UNESCO, the U.S. is limited in its ability to push back.

Where We Now Stand 

In the FY2023 Omnibus Appropriations bill, Congress provided the State Department with temporary authority to waive current funding prohibitions and resume financial contributions to and engagement with UNESCO. While the bill did not include additional funds to make a full contribution to the Agency, President Biden allocated $150 million in the FY2024 budget request to begin paying down our arrears.

It’s now incumbent upon Congress to approve this funding.

Learn more at UNESCO

The Value of UNESCO

UNESCO’s mandate covers a vast range of programs and initiatives related to promoting education, intercultural dialogue, human rights, innovation and the sciences, arts, and communication.

Explore a few key areas of the Agency’s work.

  • Universal Education

    Primarily through the Education For All (EFA) Program, UNESCO advocates for access to quality primary education — particularly for girls, minorities, and vulnerable communities. UNESCO’s mandate to promote inclusive and equitable quality education worldwide also serves to combat violent extremism. With U.S. support, UNESCO organized its first-ever High-Level Conference on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) through Education, including publication of a teacher’s guide for CVE.

  • Education During Crises

    The Agency played a key role in responding to educational disruptions during COVID-19. In response to widespread school closures in the beginning of the pandemic, UNESCO established a taskforce to disseminate technical assistance and information on best practices to governments working to provide education to students who were out of school. UNESCO also launched the Global COVID-19 Education Coalition with members of the private sector, including Microsoft, to help countries deploy remote learning systems to students. In addition, UNESCO provided guidance to countries on effective practices for keeping schools open, as well as ways to help students who have fallen behind during the pandemic, including how to identify at-risk students and concrete steps to promote learning recovery.

  • Holocaust Education

    Recognizing that Holocaust education is fundamental to promoting respect for human rights, UNESCO encourages all member states to incorporate Holocaust education into their national curricula. Since 2007, UNESCO has worked to develop educational materials and run training seminars for teachers to help impart the lessons of the Holocaust to children around the world. The UNESCO campaign, “Protect the Facts,” raises public awareness to address Holocaust denial.

  • Information and Communication Standards

    UNESCO works to improve freedom of information, promoting standards for the safety of local journalists and foreign correspondents who are often targeted in conflict areas. This includes working with governments to ensure legal freedom of the press. In the Middle East, for example, journalists in one UNESCO program received training in investigative journalism skills, ethics, professionalism, conflict sensitivity, and the interactions of media and democracy. These types of programs are particularly important in light of growing authoritarianism and threats against the independence and safety of journalists.

  • Protection of Cultural Heritage Sites

    The Agency works in myriad ways to protect cultural heritage sites worldwide — a particularly critical issue given that extremists have sought to destroy treasured archeological sites and sell items of cultural value on the black market. In 2015 and 2016, for example, the organization supported efforts by the Malian government to reconstruct and restore 14 mausoleums dating back to the 13th century which had been destroyed by extremist Islamist groups who occupied Timbuktu in 2012. The organization has also supported efforts to reconstruct other monuments damaged during the occupation and safeguard medieval manuscripts.

    Outside of the Sahel, UNESCO is central to efforts to rebuild heritage sites in Mosul, much of which was destroyed in fighting between ISIS and Iraqi / Western coalition forces. In 2018, UNESCO launched “Revive the Spirit of Mosul,” which mobilized funding to rebuild the city’s iconic Al-Nouri Mosque, as well as homes and schools in the Old City of Mosul.

  • The U.S. and the World Heritage Program

    UNESCO’s World Heritage program is beneficial to the U.S. Currently, dozens of sites around the country jockey for this prestigious designation. Studies have shown that the economic benefit of World Heritage designation affords an overall economic impact of $100 million and 1,000 new jobs, as well as bringing in an additional $2 million in hotel tax revenue.

  • Focus on Ending Anti-Semitism

    “The UN, the United States, and Israel are all on the same page here: As Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor said ‘It is great that so many countries have partnered with Israel to raise this issue of anti-Semitism to the top of the UN’s agenda.’ This sentiment will undoubtedly be echoed from U.S. leadership at the meeting, including U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power and U.S. Congressman Ted Deutch. Read more here.